For safety sakes let’s play Rugby!!
The National Football League kicks off another season on September 5. The meaningless pre-season games are over and it’s time to get serious about my New England Patriots and their mercurial coach Bill Belichick. I am a big fan, and I have become a bigger fan since the once woeful Patsies have become perennial contenders. I am also an ex- college player who suffered two concussions on the gridiron. My third and last concussion was suffered playing rugby in Livorno Italy on a cold winter Sunday in 1972. My team Frontisterion Firenze was in a tight match with some big dockworkers from Rugby Livorno. I made the mistake of using my American football training and running full speed headfirst into a solid Italian rugger. I woke up lying on my back under a cold shower in the locker room not knowing where I was nor speaking Italian. Monday morning I visited a “medico” in Florence. He told me that I had just played my last rugby game. If thousands of NFLers and footballers at all levels had been subjected to the decisive diagnosis of that Florentine doctor, we would be dealing with a lot less cases of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Used to be that a “bell ringer” was an accepted part of the game. Now scientific evidence has mounted in linking the concussive activity that takes place during every play on the football field to the debilitating and ultimately deadly CTE. A remarkable article in the NY Times on June 20, 2012 by Ben Shpigel quoted iconic Hall of Famer and ex Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw as saying that concern over head injuries would cause football to be eclipsed in popularity by soccer and other sports within 10 years. Wow, what a difference a few years and a few dramatic suicides make: Dave Duerson, an All Pro Chicago bear defensive player rigged up a shotgun to shoot himself in the chest so that his brain would be preserved for scientific research on CTE. The link between football and severe brain damage is now established as tight as smoking and cancer! I say football in ten years may become a marginal blood sport like boxing! The human health toll, even over the average pro career of three years, is too much even for this macho celebration of American manhood to bear. Tom Brady’s father said in the NYT piece that if he knew then what he knows today Tom Terrific would have never been allowed to put on the pads as a youngster!
Having played both American football and rugby, I enjoy provoking an argument by proclaiming how much safer a game rugby is! The uninitiated react with derision by saying, “You are nuts, those ruggers wear no protective equipment!” I point out always that it is exactly the equipment and unfortunately the helmet that makes football so deadly. First of all with a helmet on, you are constantly putting your head in concussive contact with other hard objects: pads, other helmets and forearms. The helmet itself is a deadly weapon, and in my day we were taught to lead with your head to disable the opposing player. So while rugby is a rough sport there is not the concussive activity on every play from scrimmage particularly for interior linemen. Furthermore because rugby is a game of constant motion and running that requires that everyone be capable of handling the ball, there is not the possibility of specialization that exists in football. There are no wholesale substitutions on offense and defense, no TV timeouts, and no huddles to call plays. All players run all the time up a down a field longer than a football pitch and have to handle the ball and even be capable of using their feet to kick it. There is no room for quasi-obese 350-pound sumo wrestlers who make their living in short bursts of activity in the offensive line and then trundle to the sidelines for rest.
American football evolved from the British imported rugby in the latter part of the 19th century. Probably for the health and safety of America’s young people it is time for a sports retro evolution! For safety’s sake let’s play rugby!
Of Rugby, Race and Rands
Rugby is a beautiful, free-flowing game. It combines the best of the individual initiative and brilliance displayed in soccer with the best of the structure and coordination found in American football. It is a physical game in which players do not wear the helmets and padding that we now understand to cause rather than protect from injury, but it is also a game which brooks none of the thuggery that ruins professional ice hockey.
I grew up with the game of rugby, and it is hard to overstate what it meant to me and my contemporaries. But it was the rugby of Apartheid that we grew up with, and it was only through the efforts of Cheeky Watson and others who defied segregated sport at home, and protests such as those against the 1980 South African tour of New Zealand, that we could come to understand the deeper relationship between the sport and its social context. Rugby isolation was one of the factors that played a role in the ending of Apartheid. But it is too much to say that white South Africans traded any of the privileges of apartheid for the ability to watch and play international rugby.
The first round of the new Rugby Championship was played on August 18th, 2012. The tournament, which included Argentina for the first time, is an expansion of the Tri-Nations tournament, played annually since 1996 between the southern hemisphere rugby powerhouses, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Although billed as international ‘test’ matches, the Rugby Championship and the Tri-Nations tournament before it are really product offerings of a successful commercial enterprise, SANZAR, a corporation jointly owned by the South African Rugby Union, the New Zealand Rugby Union and the Australian Rugby Union. SANZAR was formed in 1995, at the same time that the International Rugby Board (IRB), facing pressure from commercial interests (a proposed rival league), agreed to the professionalization of the game at all levels. Professionalization represented both a threat and an opportunity for the national rugby administrators. And if market expansion is a feature of a successful corporation, then SANZAR has done rather well. When the Tri-Nations Tournament began in 1996, each team played each other at home and away for a total of six matches. This was increased to nine matches in 2005; in 2012 there will be twelve matches. Scheduling the tournament across multiple continents and time zones involves careful coordination of travel plans, local crowds and TV audiences.
While most of the players in the newly admitted Argentinian team ply their craft in club rugby in Europe during the southern hemisphere summer, the other players in this competition know each other well. Almost all of them play in SANZAR’s other product, the highly competitive tri-national Super Rugby tournament. Teams in this tournament are regional, faintly echoing the Provincial structure of pre-professional rugby.
South Africa defeated Argentina with relative ease, while half a world away the New Zealand All Blacks made short work of the even weaker than usual Australian Wallabies. But with tougher games to come, the South Africa hooker suffered an injury that has probably ended his season. Hooker? Most skills in rugby are interchangeable; everyone is expected to pass, carry the ball, tackle and wrestle for the ball, but the position of hooker at the centre of the scrum entails a highly specialised set of skills and a special kind of toughness. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Bismarck du Plessis was injured in the opening match of the tournament. He is also hooker for the Sharks franchise, the Durban-based team which plays in the Super Rugby competition. In 2012, the Sharks went on a surprising run all the way to final. To get there, they played 16 regular season games. Then they travelled to Brisbane to defeat the Queensland Reds in the quarterfinals, to Cape Town to defeat the Stormers in the semi-final, and then to Waikato to lose to the Chiefs in the final – on 3 successive Saturdays. Back in Cape Town two weeks later, against Argentina, Bismarck was led off the field.
Increasingly, this is what the modern international game of rugby looks like: a global elite of well-compensated players are expected to perform at the very highest levels for more than half the weeks of the year. Even the rules of the game have changed with professionalization. Many changes have been designed to avoid career-ending injuries: for example, the notoriously dangerous ‘spear tackle’ in which the tackler lifts another player and dumps them upside down into the ground was outlawed in 2010. Rules to protect players from the neck injuries that can arise in collapsed scrums were changed in 2007. However, rugby authorities have only recently begun to study the problem of concussions and other head injuries. And in professional sport, the ethnographer P David Howe reminds us, while injury is a problem for the bottom line, pain is expected.
Others rule changes were simply about making the game more of a crowd pleaser; for example, most league competitions now award bonus-points to teams which score above a certain number of tries (the equivalent of a touch-down) in a game, regardless of the result. Other rule changes have been designed to ensure a more free-flowing game. And thankfully, the regulators of rugby union have not yet found a way to interrupt the flow of play for television advertising breaks.
All of these changes have rather more to do with commercialization and globalization than the ending of Apartheid and the re-establishment of a much-loved sporting rivalry amongst the nations of the “white Commonwealth”. The trade-off was never as simple as racial compromise for more rugby.
Still, to this day, you can’t really talk about rugby – especially not South African rugby – without considering race. Little has changed since 1995 when Francois Pienaar led the Springboks to victory over the All Blacks in the epic final of the 1995 World Cup tournament, and when Nelson Mandela embraced the game and its supporters into the newly democratic nation. As memorialized so well in the movie, Invictus, the winning Springbok team included only one black player – Chester Williams. [The only thing that disappointed me about the movie was the slow-motion (!) re-enactment of the play, and the accompanying grunt-filled sound-track]
The South African team which took the field in August 2012 included three black players, including Zimbabwe-born Tendai Mtawarira and South African all-time leading try-scorer and 2007 IRB player of the year, Bryan Habana. Still, that leaves twelve white players out of fifteen on the national team; 80% of the players drawn from less than 20% of the population. Racial quotas are a constant topic of debate amongst rugby players, officials and fans; they are applied at lower levels in the game, but not to the national team.
So, how should we think about the relationship between commerce and race in contemporary South African rugby, especially in relation to those north American professional sports in which members of the African-American and Latin American minorities are vastly over-represented on the field in front of crowds that at overwhelmingly wealthy and white? Perhaps this is the future of South African rugby. The high proportion of Maori men playing professional rugby in New Zealand teams would tend to support this prediction. But there are reasons for thinking that integration at the top level will be slow – in comparison to soccer, this is an elite sport played by small numbers of people, with a wealthy but finite market. In South Africa today, rugby for the most part cannot be viewed on the national broadcast TV channels, only on the pay television channels.
With a limited market size, it is not clear how far commercial interests will be willing to invest in transforming the sport at the point where great players are made. Before professionalization, rugby was a game organized through schools, universities, clubs and provincial representation; the elite rugby schools and clubs where reserved for whites. Commercial considerations do now reach down to the schools level, but they have been mapped onto the pre-existing hierarchies. It is no accident that Bryan Habana attended the formerly whites-only boys King Edward VII High School. That would be the same sporting powerhouse attended by golfer Gary Player and soccer-player Gary Bailey (Manchester United and England) amongst many other noted white sportsmen.
The high school I attended – also an elite rugby school – recently lost several games against its traditional rivals. One explanation is that with tighter age limits, the school had lost the ability to offer scholarships to post-matrics (matric being the name for the 12th grade in South Africa). These players had been bought into the school to win games and hone their skills before moving on to lucrative careers. The response: a notice was circulated to parents and alumni reassuring everyone that this situation would be addressed, and a series of newspaper advertisements for scholarships offered to 10th graders with great rugby skills. As long as just some formerly white elite schools are willing and able to act in this way, the South African rugby market will remain amply supplied.
So perhaps we can say this: with the ending of Apartheid, some white South Africans gained access to the personal, commercial and consumer opportunities afforded by professional international rugby. Not a bad deal, especially not for the corporate owners, but not a clear pathway to transformation either. The national team has taken only baby steps towards racial integration, and few black players are sharing in the riches of the game. And all players, regardless of race, now face the injuries, pain and improbable risk-reward ratios as do other sports professionals.